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Plainridge yet to adopt method to curb problem gambling

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The delay comes amid disappointing revenue figures for Plainridge Park Casino, which opened in June 2015.
The delay comes amid disappointing revenue figures for Plainridge Park Casino, which opened in June 2015.Keith Bedford

PLAINVILLE — Eight months after it opened, the state's first casino has not adopted a system designed to curb problem gambling, undercutting a key provision in the state's casino law.

The state Gaming Commission unanimously approved the "play management" system in late 2014, saying it would help minimize the impacts of problem gambling.

The system would allow gamblers to set limits on how much they play — and lose — on their loyalty cards, and would flash warnings as gamblers approach preset loss limits. Gamblers would have to acknowledge the warning, but then would be able to continue to play.

At the time, Stephen Crosby, the commission chairman, touted the system as the first of its kind in the United States, and a potential breakthrough in dealing with gambling's social ills. The system also helped the state's first casino — Plainridge Park Casino, a slot parlor in Plainville — meet the requirements of the state's 2011 law that any negative consequences of gambling be minimized.

But Plainridge opened last June without the system, and its adoption has since been delayed repeatedly. The commission did not set a specific deadline for implementation.

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Gambling specialists said it was not surprising that the casino had not rushed to adopt technology designed to discourage excessive losses.

"What's the job of a casino? To make as much money as possible," said Paul DeBole, a Lasell College professor who has studied New England's gambling industry. "Setting limits on gambling isn't necessarily the highest priority, at least not when a casino first opens."

Crosby blamed the delay on the difficulty in designing a system that gamblers will be willing to use.

"How do you get people to use it without feeling embarrassed?" Crosby asked. "And it has to be user-friendly."

The delay in implementing a play management system comes amid disappointing revenue figures for the slot parlor. Initial projections estimated Plainridge would bring in as much as $300 million in its opening year, but after seven months it is on pace to collect just $162 million.

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Crosby said a play management system might well cut into casino revenue, but said the benefits would outweigh the costs.

"If it helps some people control their gambling, and that depresses gaming revenue, we're totally fine with that," he said. "Responsible gambling is a very high priority."

The state taxes Plainridge's gambling revenue at 49 percent, most of which goes to cities and towns. That has totaled about $40 million since the casino opened last June. The state's casino law also requires that a sizable chunk of revenue — $9 million to date — help prop up the horse racing industry.

A spokesman for Penn National, the company that owns Plainridge Park Casino, declined to comment on the delay.

Marlene Warner, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, said the delay has been frustrating but understandable.

"Would we like faster implementation? Yes, but we think it's taking the amount of time necessary," she said.

Once in place, the system will "be a benefit," she added.

The Council on Compulsive Gambling has a $400,000 contract with the state Gaming Commission to provide advisers on gambling problems to anyone who asks for help at the Plainville casino.

When first presented to the commission in late 2014, the play management system was heralded as a way to prevent overspending by those who might otherwise "get carried away" by the excitement of gambling. It initially would have let gamblers set their own limits on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and receive rewards for sticking to them.

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Judith Glynn, a specialist on gambling who made the presentation, said such a system could "deliver compelling public health benefits."

But commission members voiced concern it would send people to out-of-state casinos, and create a perception of Massachusetts as a "nanny" state bent on interfering with gamblers' choices.

A casino trade group also objected, calling the proposal "disproportionate to the scope of problem gambling in Massachusetts."

In the end, commission members voted for a watered-down version of the original proposal, requiring casinos to give gamblers the option of setting loss limits, but not requiring them to reward gamblers for complying with those limits.

Play management systems have been tried in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Glynn said. But the programs are too new to produce meaningful conclusions on how they affect behavior, she said.

The system slated for the 1,250 slot machines at Plainridge will be analyzed to determine its effectiveness.

Outside Plainridge Park Casino recently, Sale Lynch said he thought a play management system might help those who have the gambling "bug." Lynch, who had driven down from South Boston, said he had a system of his own — leaving most of his cash inside his car so he couldn't lose it. At least not so quickly.

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"That only means I take couple of walks back to the car while I'm here," he said with a smile.

A system approved in 2014 would allow gamblers to set limits.
A system approved in 2014 would allow gamblers to set limits.Mass Gaming Commission

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.